An Interview with Jessica Cottis

By · Title Image © Kaupo Kikkas · Date 5/10/2018

Jessica Cottis has always had a hypersensitivity to sound. As she walks into the cafe at the British Film Institute cinema to meet me, she is acutely aware of little noises—like the man at a table on the right tapping away at his laptop keyboard. She describes this sound to me with a harsh burst of white noise from her mouth. Even as we speak, the sound of a passing motorbike outside the building causes her to stop mid-sentence and wince. “It’s kind of a pest,” she tells me. But if so, it’s a pest that has helped her to become one of Britain’s leading young conductors, with appointments at the London Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Opera House, and the LA Philharmonic—and that’s just this season.Born in Australia to a military attaché father, Cottis spent her childhood on bases, the sounds of sirens ringing in her ears. At three years old, she started piano lessons—from her mother, at first—and by the age of 25 was playing organ professionally, having studied in Paris with Marie-Claire Alain (once the most widely recorded classical organist in the world). But in that year, the onset of carpal tunnel syndrome ended her performing career. After a brief hiatus, she enrolled in conducting studies at London’s Royal Academy of Music and has never looked back. On the day we met, she had just returned from wielding the baton at Prague’s 60th anniversary Kocian violin competition.

VAN: When you conduct, to what extent do you lead and to what extent do you follow?

Jessica Cottis: You’re always leading. Always. But there’s that Virgina Woolf quote, in The Waves, when she says, “I am rooted, but I flow.” And it’s the same with conducting. You’re in charge, but if a player brings something—their own musicality, their own vision, their own years and years of experience—they play something and you listen to it, and actually for that nanosecond, they’re in charge.

You’re just about to start work on a new opera, “Mamzer,” by the young Israel-born composer Na’ama Zisser. What kind of relationship do you like to have with living composers?

I personally like to work closely with composers. Because every time I conduct a Beethoven symphony, for example, I so wish I could go back in time and have a quick chat, over coffee, with Beethoven. Like, what were you thinking at the beginning of this symphony?

Did you really mean those tempo markings?

Precisely! We can read letters and we can follow performance practice. But it’s not the same thing. So I do like having long conversations with composers. It’s not about, is that note right or is that note wrong? Is this tempo right or wrong? That comes with the rehearsal process. But what is it here, what’s the philosophy, what’s the psychology, what’s the sound and color that you’re aiming for with this? Because even the most heavily marked-up scores don’t tell us everything.

Schubert, Symphony No. 8; Jessica Cottis (Conductor), Mälmo Symphony Orchestra. Recorded live in November 2017.

It’s interesting that you mention “color.” I read that you have a form of synesthesia.


When did you first become aware of this?

That’s a funny question. I mean, I was always aware of it. As a child, I assumed that everybody has this. We don’t really realize these things—with any non-neurotypical phenomena—until we start going to school and talking with people and realizing they don’t necessarily experience the world in a similar way. So I would have been about seven or eight. And I suddenly felt, “Oh! That’s a pity.”

How does it manifest for you?

For me it’s harmonies—and I mean harmony loosely. It doesn’t need to be tonal. A collection of notes together will elicit some kind of color for me. I actually find that it’s hugely useful because if there’s a chord being played, for example, in the winds and the brass, and something is out of tune, the color for me is…I kind of see a fuzziness. It’s very easy for me to hear a 10-pitch chord and I will know exactly where the imbalance is, because the color’s not right.

This fuzziness sounds almost like a visual analogue to the beat frequencies of closely tuned pitches.

Not dissimilar. That’s a nice analogy. I might steal that.

You learned piano from your mother at first.

She was a very fine amateur pianist. Then I took up organ when I was 18, really just because when I entered to do my undergraduate degree, my head of school said, “Oh, there’s an organ scholarship going at the local cathedral.” So I was given the organ scholarship and it kind of fitted like a glove. I went to Paris and studied there, and worked for a number of years. And then I got carpal tunnel syndrome.

When did this happen exactly?

2004 to 2005, building up to a point where I did a recital and I was playing a big piece by Franz Liszt, and the fingers in my left hand just stopped working. Of course, it’s Liszt, it was fine—you can just play some funky harmonies! Just play B-A-C-H and some diminished chords for a while and then I got back into it. I laugh about it now, but actually it was quite traumatic at the time. Something that normally came unconsciously suddenly just didn’t work.

So how long did that process take—going from “I can’t be a musician!” to “I could be a conductor!”

Actually, not that long. I studied law for a little bit. But I kind of knew in a way that having effectively been a musician since I was so little, it would be almost impossible to continue without music in my life in that really significant way. So it was in 2006 that I auditioned for the Royal Academy—without really any technique. But with a knowledge of how I would like music to be in my head. I spent three years learning my technique from Colin Metters and Colin Davis. And that made me.

The thing that underpinned all of the philosophy there was the sense that sound is an entity. We think of sound as something that happens to just pass by our ears and then disappear. But it’s as tangible as you or I sitting here right now. And in that process of working with sound, we need to look after it. We need to carry it. So what we’re doing when we’re conducting is not just about beats. It’s what happens between one and two or between three and four and how are we taking sound on its journey throughout an entire piece. And then through the silences as well. Because silence in itself becomes a kind of sound. The lack of sound becomes something to listen for.

That was the really core philosophical understanding of music that underpinned the whole three years. And then of course, how to actually show that in a physical way, in front of an orchestra, which is very different from playing piano or organ, where you’re just by yourself. It’s an individual pursuit, whereas conducting is all about inspiring people to play their best.

So to what extent are your gestures just for the benefit of the orchestral players themselves, and to what degree are you also performing your gestures for the seated audience?

I think if we become conscious of what we’re doing for the audience then we’re doing something that is egotistical. I think our job is very much to serve the music and the amount of time we’ve spent being with that music and then being that, a physical embodiment of that, so that the orchestra can play together and get those shapes and colors and all of the shadows and the light. Now, once that happens, if the audience pick up on that, then it’s sometimes a lovely way for them to be more attuned to what’s going on.

For example, if you’re playing a big symphony by Mahler and there’s a wonderful theme in the double basses and the conductor just makes a small gesture over in their direction, those people who are watching will probably turn their attention to the double basses, which—of course, because our senses are so linked—leads them to hear more clearly the double bass theme, because we see them doing it. It’s a kind of weird psychological thing going on. Would I do that actively and consciously to help the audience hear? No. I think it’s a pleasant byproduct of what we do.

Dvořák, Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, IV. Allegro con fuoco; Jessica Cottis (Conductor), Sydney Symphony, 2015. 

Recently you’ve been involved in setting up the Glasgow New Music Expedition. What was the aim of that group?

Me and the other co-founder, Richard Greer, wanted to set up an ensemble in Scotland with younger players to do music only by living composers. And to take risks. To try out composers who aren’t published and who don’t have wonderful CVs. And we also wanted to do things where we would collaborate with different art forms.

Why “expedition”?

Expedition was because both Richard and I have a fascination with all things outer space. So it was a sense that we wanted to not feel constricted by earthly confines, that we could use the imaginative realm to see what’s possible.

So it’s like an “Arkestra,” in the Sun Ra sense.

Yeah! Exactly! Very much so.

Photo © Gerard Collet
Photo © Gerard Collet

A while ago I read John Szwed’s book, Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra, and there’s an interesting quote from one particular Arkestra member, trumpeter Phil Cohran, where he says, “You had to think space. Had to expand beyond the earth plane…we didn’t have any models, so we had to create our own language.” You get a clear sense, I think, that all the astro-mythology in Sun Ra was actively pushing the musicians to play more out there.

We can’t possibly develop creatively if we don’t allow ourselves the possibility to think in different ways. We did one piece, actually, by Jay Capperauld. He’d written on the score, quarter note equals 7.5. I had to conduct as though I was in zero gravity, which was incredibly difficult. The piece was 15 minutes long, and it was like doing some sort of tantric yoga. Everything was suspended. I looked at the score, and I said, “Jay! Surely we could have done this in a way that you could have the same effect with me beating… a little faster, at least so it’s not tai chi or something.” And he said, “No, this is very important—it’s part of the way of looking at the piece.” It was about some Russian cosmonauts who had suffocated in space. And it really did—it somehow changed really deeply the way we felt about playing. Even just basic things like time signatures and pulse. What is time in zero gravity? How does one breathe in zero gravity? ¶